The significance of Ford’s Theatre, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., is hard to overstate. On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd, and two of their close friends attended a performance at the iconic D.C. venue. During the middle of the play, famed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln, who was sitting in a private box seat with his three companions.
Booth, who fame was so great he might best be described as the Matt Damon or “The Rock” Johnson of his time, allegedly used his celebrity to enter Lincoln’s box, and after blocking the door so Lincoln’s guards would not be able to easily enter, shot the President and injured his male friend. Booth then used one of the large curtains to swing down from the box seats and onto the stage, where he famously shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” meaning thus always to tyrants. The phrase, used by Brutus in the assassination of Ceasar, is also the state motto of Virginia – which would prove to be ironic in Booth’s final days.
Lincoln would remain in critical condition for hours before passing early the next morning in a bed in the Petersen House, a modest home across the street from Ford’s Theatre and also part of the tour. While Booth succeeded in assassinating the President whose efforts led to the abolition of slavery – a cause Booth vehemently denounced – other parts of his plan were not as fruitful. Lincoln’s original companions for the play, General Grant and his wife, declined the President’s invitation at last minute, dashing Booth’s hopes of murdering both the President and the Union’s most successful military leader. Meanwhile, co-conspirators failed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and only severely injured Secretary of State William Seward. Booth did manage to escape Ford’s Theatre, but died a few days later after federal troops found him hiding out in a barn in rural Virginia.
LOCATION: Downtown Washington, D.C. – on 10th Street, in between E and F Streets NW.
GETTING THERE: Ford’s Theatre is easily accessible from anywhere in the city. Conveniently sandwiched between Metro Center station (serviced by blue, orange, silver, and red metro lines) and Gallery Place/Chinatown station (serviced by green, red, and yellow metro lines), reaching the theatre is a breeze.
TOP STOP: The Petersen House. Located across the street from Ford’s Theatre, a stroll through the Petersen House is included in your tour and offers the opportunity to see where President Lincoln drew his final breath. Unable to endure a bumpy ride in a carriage along D.C.’s primitive streets, Lincoln’s entourage brought him to the modest house following the gunshot. Despite the fatal wound, Lincoln actually managed to survive through the night, and passed in the early hours of April 15, 1865. Visitors to the Petersen House can get a glimpse of the room and bed in which Lincoln died.
WHAT TO DO: Tours of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House last approximately two hours and include a comprehensive ranger talk in the theatre itself. The tour is carefully curated: the tour begins in a fairly extensive exhibit detailing Lincoln’s family, political strategy, and rise to national prominence. An overview of the Civil War is also provided for visitors who may have forgotten a few details since tenth grade history class. Numerous artifacts are also on display – including the actual gloves worn by Lincoln on the night of the assassination and the wooden wedge used by Booth to trap Lincoln and his companions in the box. From there, visitors are taken into the theatre, where a ranger will talk about the Booth, his co-conspirators, and the night of the assassination. Following the ranger talk, visitors then head across the street to the Petersen House, which includes a tour of the small home and an exhibit about Booth’s ultimately failed attempt to evade capture and Lincoln’s lasting legacy.
YOU SHOULD VISIT BECAUSE... Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House are an integral part of American political and social history. Booth and his co-conspirators, distressed by the Confederacy’s official surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, attempted to paralyze the federal government for the pro-slavery cause of the South. Had they been successful in assassinating Lincoln, Jackson, Grant, and Seward, Booth hoped Washington might have descended into just enough chaos that fighting may have resumed. A visit to Ford’s Theatre is a palpable reminder of just how fragile democracy can be.
Home Base: D.C.! Not every National Park is off in the middle of nowhere. When looking for a hotel, I find the immediate suburbs in Virginia are the most affordable: Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City are my top recommendations. These three neighborhoods are metro and bus accessible but also offer less expensive hotel options. While travelers might want to rent a car to explore sights on the outskirts of the city, I strongly discourage driving into downtown. Find a hotel near a metro and you’ll be all set!
D.C. is an easy and fun city to travel to; for more ideas, check out my list of budget-friendly activities in our nation’s capital city here!
Nearby Activities and Sights:
Landmark E Street Cinema is a cozy movie theater just a few minutes’ walk from Ford’s Theatre. E Street Cinema features independent films and documentaries typically not available in mainstream theaters – don’t expect any big-budget blockbusters here! – and occasionally host special midnight showings of favorites from decades past.
The Smithsonian Art Museum, located next to the Gallery Place/ Chinatown metro station, is Washington D.C.’s premier art museum. Free to enter, this museum hosts special exhibitions alongside mainstays like Early American Art and Impressionism.
Insider Tips: Food options immediately surrounding Ford’s Theatre are kitschy tourist traps – scones and chocolate bars with Lincoln’s face on them? Instead, I recommend travelers find lunch or dinner in the nearby Chinatown neighborhood. While inauthentic (if you’ve traveled to the extensive and vibrant Chinatown neighborhoods in San Francisco or New York City, Washington D.C. will be a disappointment), there are a variety of food options for travelers of any diet.
Book ahead of time, especially if you plan on visiting Ford’s Theatre in the summertime or on a weekend. Spots on each tour are limited, so to best ensure a convenient tour time, pay the three dollar reservation fee and book your tickets online ahead of time. You can easily do so here. Otherwise, tickets for same-day tours are available for free at the box office, but admittance is not guaranteed.